A week ago, I had the pleasure of attending a reception for Dr. Ruth Westheimer, celebrating both her eighty-seventh birthday and the publication of her newest book, "The Doctor Is In: Dr. Ruth on Life, Love, and Joie de Vivre." Not surprisingly, the person in the room who effortlessly displayed the most energy and spirit, with no one even a close second, was Ruth herself.
My friendship with Ruth Westheimer goes back just about thirty years. Already well-known because of her Sunday evening, nationally syndicated radio program titled “Sexually Speaking,” on WYNY here in New York, Ruth attended my synagogue as a guest of a bar-mitzvah family on the morning that Tazri’a-Metzora was the weekly Torah reading (poor bar-mitzvah boy). These portions, from Leviticus, painstakingly describe various sources of ritual impurity, including a variety of skin diseases usually thought to be some form of leprosy. More significantly, the Torah describes how the priest at the time was summoned to ascertain whether or not the manifesting disease really was tza’ra’at (leprosy), and if it was, then he would declare the ailing person tameh, impure, and banish him to a place outside the camp –michutz lamachaneh. This was both an instance of containing the spread of an infectious disease, and also of tum’ah, ritual impurity. The physical disease rendered the ill person spiritually impure.
Back then, in the mid-eighties, the AIDS epidemic was in its early years, and stigmatization of those suffering from the disease was a common form of response by those who were fearful of it. In my sermon, I pointed out how, when we read an ancient text like Tazri’a-Metzora, we are quick to point out that connecting leprosy with ritual impurity is a primitive way to understand disease and practice healing. What was becoming increasingly clear to me was that we were doing exactly the same thing with people with AIDS, particularly to members of the gay community. As if the disease itself wasn’t horrifying enough, those suffering were made to feel michutz lamachaneh … excluded from the community, and spiritually impure.
At the Kiddush following services, Dr. Ruth came over to introduce herself to me, and invited me to do a guest spot on her radio show that Sunday evening to talk about how the Jewish community was responding to the AIDS crisis. I was flattered and thrilled, and as just about every teenager in the country was listening to her program, I was definitely a rock star to the members of my synagogue’s youth group, at least for a few weeks.
After that appearance, Ruth and I did a number of joint speaking engagements in the Jewish community along the same lines. As I became more and more involved in the Jewish community’s response, especially through UJA-Federation, our paths continued to cross. Ultimately, during the years when I was teaching the senior seminar in professional skills to all graduating rabbis and cantors at the Jewish Theological Seminary, she would join me, along with the deans of both schools, to talk about how to establish clear boundary lines on intimacy when dealing with congregants (a subject that clearly is even more relevant today than it was then).
Even further down the line, Dr. Ruth’s gracious commitment to support the work of the Zamir Choral Foundation, of which I am a vice-president, has continued to keep us in the same orbit.
Thirty years down the line from our first meeting, Dr. Ruth, as the world knows her, is not just still going strong; she’s going stronger. She made the rounds of all the morning shows last week to promote her book, teaches at Teacher’s College in Manhattan, recorded a podcast with Brian Lehrer for NPR, will be speaking at the Naval Academy later this year and shows no signs of slowing down. She is completely her own person, committed to saying what she believes to be true even if it flies in the face of what is considered to be politically correct. She is also an outspoken and unapologetic Zionist, and says so at every opportunity. Just another reason to love her.
At last week’s reception, Dr. Ruth repeated what has become her mantra as she ages: “Don’t retire, rewire!” And that is exactly what she has done. The key to her vitality, as I see it, is that she is totally intrepid when it comes to taking on new challenges. Many people will be quick to say no when asked to do something they haven’t done before. At the ripe old age of eighty-seven, Ruth relishes new challenges, going new places, meeting new people. Having been robbed of her childhood and much of her family by the Holocaust, she is resolved not to be deprived of anything by her own choice. And her adventures continue, each day fresh with new possibilities.
As I watched Ruth glide across the dance floor with her charming daughter Miriam, I couldn’t help but smile, and utter an unspoken prayer that God might grace me with her spirit and vitality as I age. Happy birthday, Ruth!
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.